Cartouche & the Peddler’s Books
The peddler's life of the notorious Cartouche.
The other day, passing in front of a bookshop in Paris, I noticed a lovely little book in the window. Beside a lot of gorgeous full morocco bindings, it never looked that attractive, being a small and thin in-18 volume from the 19th century, unbound as issued (the 72 pages being bound together with a mere length of string), printed on a low quality paper and with no wrappers. The title read, in French : History of the Life and Trial of the Notorious Louis-Dominique Cartouche, and of Several of his Accomplices... printed in Lille, in the North of France, by one J. Fourray. This is one of the most famous titles of the editions of “colportage” or peddling books, retracing the career of a French bandit who terrorized the country until being executed in 1721. Regarded as a “Robin Hood” by some, allegedly linked to a lot of powerful people of his time, Cartouche stands amongst the most romantic villains of France. As a child, I used to watch his exploits in a movie featuring the irresistible Claudia – Ô Claudia! - Cardinal. I entered the shop.
Diogenese the Cynic claimed to live happy in poverty. Socrates came to him one day: “I see vanity through the holes of your coat.” I see almost the same thing in a religious book bound in an expensive binding... God deserves the best, I guess. Anyway, that’s what is so exceptional about this particular book, it has the look of what it talks about. This is the book of raw life, adventure and badness. In both senses of the term, this is a popular book. “Louis-Dominique Cartouche was born in Paris in 1693," reads the book, "in the quarter of La Courtille.” Sent to the Jesuits, the little boy started to rob to buy clothes that could match those of his wealthy school mates. One evil leading to another, he eventually had to run away from the wrath of the law a few years later. He was then sheltered by a bunch of Bohemians who taught him all the tricks in the game.
Back to Paris he became an informer and a recruiter for the army, then a soldier against his will. The peace of Utrecht sent him back to idleness. “As a cunning, skilful and robust man," reads the dictionary of F.X. de Feller (Liege, 1793), "he soon took the lead of a bunch of robbers who illustrated themselves by numerous robberies and murders.” In fact, Cartouche motivated some of his former soldier friends, and set up a confederacy of 200 men (by the end of his career, he was said to control over 2,000 men). “He dedicated himself to teach his subjects by hardening their spirits," continues the book; "he taught their hands to steal and their hearts to murder. Soon after, you heard nothing in Paris but stories of people being robbed, thrown into the river, and murdered on the Pont-Neuf.” The book also mentions a few tricks Cartouche allegedly invented, including the wax hand that pretended to pray at church while the real one was digging into the pocket of the nearest penitent. A technique I thought for years was invented by Benny Hill for his English TV comedy show but which was in practice since the 17th century.
“The public became incredible fond of Cartouche," say the forewords. "Had a Gazette nothing else to say but that Cartouche was nowhere to be found, people would be glad to read it.” Such was the craze over this dark man. Cartouche loved robbing the rich. He would attack the stagecoach between Paris and Versailles, where the Court was residing, and loot some private mansions, thus earning the reputation of a Robin Hood in a very corrupted time. He became powerful once paper money was established, as “the simple wallet he robbed with his friends put them at their ease.” He went to a banker one day, very well dressed, gave him 4,000 gold louis and obtained a “lettre de change” (the ancestor of cheques) that, he said, he would cash in Lyon where he was expected. One of his accomplices left for Lyon at once with a counterfeit letter while Cartouche went back to the banker the next day, claiming that his journey had been postponed and thus got his money back at the same time his villain friend was being paid in Lyon.
Cartouche & the Peddler’s Books
Cartouche met his fate on the wheel, a gruesome punishment.
The name of Cartouche became notorious. The government appointed more watchmen in Paris but, as the book reads, “the robbers would go out in groups at night to fight and defeat the watchmen.” We hardly imagine how dangerous Paris could have been! Bunches of criminals fighting hords of watchmen in the streets? Sounds like the aftermath of a regular football match...
Long run short catch, as the saying goes. Aware of a conspiracy within his troops, Cartouche assembled his men in the night of October 11, 1721, and asked a particular traitor to step forward. “They cut his throat," reads the book, "tore away his private parts and slashed his face so he could not be recognized.” The mutilated head was found in the Rue du Regard, Faubourg St Germain. Unfortunately for Cartouche, one of his main lieutenants who had participated in the murder, Mr. Du Châtelet, was soon identified and arrested. He had no choice but to give away his master who was soon arrested in a cabaret of La Courtille, and imprisoned. The event was so important, the King was informed as soon as he woke up. “Cartouche was put in the jail of Le Grand Châtelet, one hand tied on the belly and the other one in the back, with six bowmen guarding him at sight.” That did not prevent him from escaping. But he was caught a few hours later and was bound never to recover his freedom.
Lots of people went to visit him in his cell, including some distinguished ladies from Paris and “Mr. Legrand, the author of the comedy entitled Cartouche, desirous to share with him the profits of this work, and who gave him 100 écus.” Several engravers came to draw his portrait while the first stories of his life were printed. They sold extremely well all over the country and even in foreign countries.” According to the National Library of France (BNF), the first edition of the Life & Trial of Cartouche... was published by Machuel, in Paris, in 1722. It remained a best-seller for more than a century. The BNF thus lists 17 editions, most of which were printed in the first part of the 19th century, outside Paris. The text hardly differs, each book usually features 70 pages or so. The most sought-after editions are those featuring engravings – up to 4 for the most illustrated ones. A late 18th century edition features a woodcut on the title page, of Cartouche tied to the wheel where he was laid in Place de Grève, after he had endured the “extraordinary question” - he suffered the torture of the “brodequins”, which consisted in breaking the bones of one’s legs in a very painful way. He did not give away his accomplices, though – not until he realized they would never come to save him. That did not save him from being put to death, though – but as he had repented to God (as the story goes), the executioner, having broken his last intact bones, discreetly strangled him from under the wheel... they were Christians, after all.
Cartouche & the Peddler’s Books
An early (1840) Dutch cartoon on the notorious life of Cartouche.
“Larrons”, robbers and thieves, have always been a vulgar subject, dedicated to the masses. Thus the Histoire Générale des Larrons, by De Calvi (1639), for example, was printed in Rouen – a city known for its low quality and cheaper printings. These books are almost always in bad condition, because they have been read over and over. In the field of books, peddling saw the light as soon as the 16th century. Wealthy people living in the countryside could thus buy books. In the 18th century, though, cheaper books entered the households of farmers where many families would gather in front of the fireplace to hear the only man in the village who could read. “Peddlers sold religious books but also teaching books, school books (...). You could also buy some books about magic like the Fantastic Explanation of Dreams, The Great Albert, the Little Albert, The Mirror of Astrology, The Art of Chiromancy etc.” reads the Larousse encyclopedia.
At the turn of the 19th century, topics evolved and the “Bibliothèque bleue”, or “the Blue Library”, specializing in this type of publication, became very fashionable. These books were cheap (4 sous), because they aimed at conquering this specific audience. The topics are rarely captivating: a lot of humourous works (The Malice of Women, The Misery of Husbands, The Description of Six Forms of Farts etc.), some chivalry novels (The Conquests of Charlemagne, Robert the Devil, etc.) and, of course, crime stories such as the lives of Cartouche or Mandrin - another notorious villain of the 18th century. A peculiar peddling book is even entitled Dialogue between Cartouche and Mandrin... The two robbers meet and quarrel in hell and Proserpine takes the wheels upon which each man suffered death to make herself a cabriolet. “Ever since, Proserpine is riding her cabriolet, as crazily as the French do on the Boulevards”, concludes this enigmatic 11-page text which appears to be a pamphlet against bad drivers. Of course, some noble spirits, mainly clergymen and teachers, rose against this vile literature that was misleading the youth and the series “literature for the youth” was launched as a sane reaction to peddling books, and saved many souls from damnation. But in the middle of the 19th century, serialized novels published in newspapers put an end to this form of literature. It is said, nevertheless, that the last peddlers worked until around 1930.
Peddling books have a fan club, nowadays. In my opinion, most of these works are just hard to digest – or rather untasty. But some masterpieces have surfaced over the years, and the Life of Cartouche... is one of them, if you ask me. For some reason, the adventures of this villain fascinate me. He was no ordinary robber and excellency exists in every field, evil included. I’ve since come across another copy of the Life of Cartouche... it was bound in half-morocco ; a mark of respect, I guess. Cartouche, fond of luxury as he was, would have appreciated. I‘ll stick to my raw copy, though – when I open it up, it smells of the spirit of adventure, the sweat of horses and the powder of gunshots. An ugly book, for an ugly life - that means beauty to me.